“Send a force and rescue us!”

A map of the southern Levant in antiquity with Eqron about 20 km inland from and a bit north of Ashkelon and 30 km west of Jerusalem
If one were reduced to a single atlas of the ancient world as I am, this one would not be a bad choice. From Anna-Maria Wittke et al., Historische Atlas der antiken Welt (J.B. Metzler Stuttgart 2012) Seite 45 Karte B.

Sometimes life is really like a romance. One of the oldest letters in Aramaic to survive from Egypt goes like this:

(1) To the lord of kings pharaoh; your subject Adon king of E[qrom wishes you well. May … the lady of] (2) heaven and earth and the lord of the heavens, [great] god, [make the throne of the lord of kings] (3) pharaoh like the days of heaven and seed [… Your subject wishes you to know that the forces] (4) of the king of Babylon have come and have reached Apeq and … (5) they have seized and brought … with all … (6) because the lord of kings pharaoh knows that his subject [cannot stand alone he begs you] (7) to send a force and rescue us and not abandon us. [If the lord of kings pharaoh does this,] (8) your subject will remember this kindness and this princeling … [If the king of Babylon takes it, he will establish] (9) a governor in the land, and alter the record …

(tr. Manning after the text in TADE, as I am only a beginner I urge readers with a serious interest to find a professional translation while keeping in mind that this edition of the Aramaic is different from some earlier ones)

One of pharaoh’s scribes in Egypt dutifully added a note in demotic on the back which mentions the “lady of Eqrom,” but pharaoh’s answer is unknown. While most ancient letters are the sort of text which only a special kind of nerd could love, I think that this one has potential. Scholars call it the Adon letter after its author or the Saqqara papyrus after the place where it was found in 1942. Although I don’t expect that any of the excavators were locked in a tomb full of snakes, conducting an excavation in quasi-independent Egypt while the Afrika Korps dashed back and forth between Tripoli and Alexandria must have had some excitement.

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How Can Ancient Art Help Us Read Ridolfo Capo Ferro?

A photo of two naked fencers with round strapped shields and long thrusting swords.
Capo Ferro’s engraver illustrates the perils of lifting one’s shield to parry a feint to the high left, giving one’s opponent a chance to strike low unseen (Gran Simulacro, Siena 1610 edition, plate 42). Photo c/o Wiktenauer

A discussion on another blog revised an old controversy, namely what size of sword the Italian master Ridolfo Capo Ferro expected his students to use. I am not a student of any seventeenth-century art, whether rhetoric or fencing, so I can’t contribute to the discussion with a perspective on what length of sword works best with his techniques, or what length was most common in northern Italy in 1610. I am a student of ancient literature, so this week I will talk about some things from the ancient world which help me to interpret his manual.
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The Petition of Marcus Aurelius Sarapion

A bare marble statue of a torso in armour with shoulder flaps and a sash
Torso in a Hellenistic tube-and-yoke cuirass (on display in Palazzo Te, Mantua; photo Sean Manning)

One category of evidence central to this issue [of the abuse of civilians by soldiers] is the large number of petitions directed to officials, where in one sample roughly a third were directed to centurions acting in a local police role (Hobson 1993). The sheer number of petitions suggests that abuse was widespread. A still further complication could be that a centurion was petitioned concerning abuse by a soldier. How likely is fairness in this regard? Such was the case for Aurelius Sarapion in a petition to the centurion Aurelius Marcianus:

there is nothing more dreadful or harder to bear than maltreatment. At the time of life I have reached, being over eighty years, I served faithfully as an Arab archer. A sow having escaped from my daughter in the village and being reported to be at the house of the soldier Julius, I went to him to demand his oath about this matter, and he laying hands on me, despite my age, in the village in the middle of the day, as if there were no laws, laboured me with many blows. (P. Graux 4 [248])

He goes on to list witnesses and to seek redress.

From Colin Adams, “War and Society in the Roman Empire” in B. Campbell and L. A. Tritle eds., The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World (Oxford University Press: Oxford 2013) p. 267

(I do not have access to that volume of P. Graux, so I cannot give the original text)

Adams uses this papyrus to ask a question about how often Roman centurions (who often acted as judges and police in the countryside) gave justice when a civilian accused a soldier. Today I will ask another question. In this passage an ancient person tells us a great deal about who he was, or who he wanted to be seen to be. So what was Sarapion’s ethnicity? I would encourage my learned readers to really think about this whether or not they click “more” to see my opinion.

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A Deed Never Yet Done

Line drawing of a relief where pharaoh with a falcon overhead draws his bow as his two-horse chariot tramples he fallen or fleeing enemy
A deed done over and over again: two dynasties after Amenhotep, Ramses III smites the Libyans (from The Epigraphic Survey (eds.), Medinet Habu, Volume 1: Earlier Historical Records of Ramses III. Oriental Institute Publications 8. Plate 18 c/o the generous Oriental Institute )

While I do not think that many Bronze Age or Classical bows were as powerful as the longbows from the Mary Rose or the hornbows from the Tokapi Palace, I can think of one or two exceptions. Today I would like to give one which I recently stumbled over while reviewing an article by Pierre Briant. As often happens, reading this passage again revealed something which I had not remembered.

The Great Sphinx Stele tells the following story of Pharaoh Amenhotep II of the New Kingdom:

He also came to do the following … Entering his northern garden, he found erected for him four targets of Asiatic copper, of one palm in thickness, with a distance of twenty cubits between one post and the next. Then his Majesty appeared on the chariot like Mont in his might. He drew his bow while holding four arrows together in his fist. Then he rode northward shooting at them, like Mont in his panoply, each arrow coming out of the back of its target while he attacked the next post. It was a deed never yet done, never yet heard reported: shooting an arrow at a target of copper, so that it came out of it and dropped to the ground.

Andrea M. Gnirs, “Ancient Egypt,” in Kurt Raaflaub and Nathan Rosenstein eds., War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Cambridge MA, 1999) p. 84 citing the Great Sphinx Stele of Amenhotep II in Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Volume 2. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976) pp. 41, 42.
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Twilight of the Scribes

The BBC has a short piece on the vanishing of professional letter-writers in India (link). A generation ago, someone who wanted a letter written or a package addressed could hire someone to do that for them outside most post offices in big cities. In the author’s view, rising literacy rates make letter-writers less necessary, but... Continue reading: Twilight of the Scribes